Darren White put out his first 12” in 1993. A self-pressed slice of techno-dub-hardcore-jungle under the name Sewage Monsters (or Sewer Monsters depending on who you ask), recorded with his brother Steve (aka Steve Spacek), you can listen to it on YouTube, or fork out a small fortune to buy a copy.
Its opening drums are — to be frank — crap. But give it a minute, and it bursts into brain-melting melodies, pitched up dancehall samples, snippets of R2D2’s confused bleep, sub demolishing bass drops, and rattling, frantic breakbeats. It’s a crazy snapshot taken from the birth of the culture that would come to be known as drum & bass.
20 years later and White — now known in raves round the world as dBridge — is poised to release the second 'Mosaic' compilation through his wildly feted Exit imprint. Two decades of defining what drum & bass means, and he’s still obsessed with those infinitely mutable combinations of futuristic melody and kinetic breakbeats that he first warped back in ‘93. He’s just got a little better at doing it.
“I look back all the time!“ He laughs over the phone, way more affable than his often fearsome productions would suggest. “It frightens me sometimes, it’s all gone so quickly, ‘specially seeing how in some respects I almost don’t feel a part of the scene anymore. Before, growing up with it I knew so much about it, being such an intrinsic part of it, with Bad Company and the Blue Note years, I really knew what was going on. But the scene has become so big now. I’m kinda on the left hand side of things and I’ve got no idea what the right hand side is doing.”
That may be the case, but 2013 has seen White revisit the mainstream in a spectacularly public way — with a Bad Company reunion. When it was announced that all four original BC members would be headlining a one-off gig to celebrate Exit’s 10th anniversary, there was a predictable frenzy for tickets. A new generation of bass fanatics scrambled at the chance to see one of the most influential groups in d&b history reunited. Then Fresh pulled out, citing ‘studio commitments’, pretty much the DJ equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’. White insists however, that there are no hard feelings.
“Argghh… Fresh is Fresh,” he groans. “He’s cool, I’m really proud of him — back-to-back No.1s is no mean feat for any act, and for him to pull it off you have to give it to him. I mean, he knows I’m no big fan of the tunes and he doesn’t really care what I think!”
Fresh’s no-show did little to slow ticket sales for the event, and the night was rammed from start to finish. White was even surprised to find himself enjoying it…
“I didn’t think I would to be honest!” he confesses. “I always want to move forward, and I didn’t want to be inundated with all these offers for reunion gigs. The whole idea of a band reforming just makes me cringe, and suddenly that’s what you're pigeonholed into. For a one-off, I’m glad I managed to pull it off.
Obviously Fresh not being there was a ball ache — to be honest if he’d have said no in the first place I probably wouldn’t have done it, but once we’d already committed I was like, 'I could be the dick here and cancel this but we’re already down the line and everyone’s super hyped, so we’ve gotta go ahead with it', and I actually really enjoyed it. It’s good to see those guys and to hear those tunes in a club again! I saw some people I used to see out at raves going bat-shit crazy to the tunes. And with drum & bass, and where it’s at now, it still gets that kind of response from people, but it’s not with music that I can connect to. I can see a connection between what mainstream DJs are playing and the audience, because it’s very reminiscent of that connection I had in BC, but I’ve moved on from that. I’m not so concerned with having people go fucking mental to a tune I’ve played.”
The tracks dBridge has gathered across the 28 tracks of 'Mosaic 2' stand testimony to this. Delving into deeper shades of drum & bass, the focus is resolutely set on twisted future sounds, with tempos switching up and down, and intricate, moody melodies designed for cerebral as well as dancefloor responses.
“I gravitate towards music that’s — maybe emotive is the word,” he explains, “not this forced thing of ‘we need a foot roll here’. It sounds dark, but I’m not overly concerned with the audience. I don’t make music for them.”
As a result of this single-minded approach, White knows he’ll probably never have the commercial appeal of some of his contemporaries — and he really doesn’t care. He’s the epitome of keeping it real, constantly pushing his own boundaries to the point where he abandons anything that he feels has grown stale. In the process he often finds himself two steps ahead of the curve.
“I’ve been doing some new stuff with Damon from Instra:Mental,” he enthuses, “I like to get excited about things, and I’m getting it again, listening to the tracks, we’re like, ‘eurrrgh this is fucking disgusting’. That kind of response is what I want from the music I make. And it’s the same with the 'Mosaic' thing, I’m getting tracks and playing them out thinking ‘euuuwww this is grotty’, almost like an audio fuck you, like people showing off — I like that kind of thing where you’re wondering, 'how the fuck did he do that'?
“With the stuff I’m doing with Damon, I get his music and I’m like, ‘Right, my tune has to be better than that now’ — not ‘I’ve got a tune that makes the audience go ‘wooo’. I want to send a tune to Damon that hurts him! I think a lot of producers will recognise that ongoing battle.”
As it turns out, dBridge’s work with Damon is the tip of a dirty great iceberg, and there’s a whole lot of new music on its way. With Exit he’s gearing up for releases from Skeptical, Stray and Kid Drama, as well as an Exit vs. inter-label project. He’s got an EP forthcoming on R&S Records, which he’s understandably proud of, noting that “it’s been a label that’s been sampled by a lot of people in dance music and gone on to shape the scene, so being a part of it is a huge deal for me”. He’s also recorded an EP with Keith ‘Radioactive Man’
Tenniswood that’s been signed to Craig Richards’ label. He’s got no idea what you’d call it though, laughing that, “I’m really ignorant to that scene — it’s in the 130 to 135 tempo, and it sounds great as far as I’m concerned, but what it is? I couldn’t tell you… Keith probably knows..” And finally, crucially, he’s got his own album, “two tracks off completion”. As yet untitled, White describes the album as an emotional work with “elements of d&b in there.
“It’s quite melancholy — dare I say emo… but it’s not a drum & bass album. It’s me singing as well. I like to think I can hold a note… 2012 was a bit shit for me on a personal note, a lot of bullshit happened to me in my own life and relationships, so I think I’m venting a bit on this album. I wanna get it out there and move on. And cheer up! I’m nervous to see what people’s reactions to it are; I’m really bad at playing my own music, and letting go, because it suddenly becomes open to judgement, and you have to accept that that’s part of it, but because some of the songs are close to me I’m not sure I wanna hear people's opinion on them..! But I guess I’ve just got to man up and get on with it. In some ways it just feels weird, being like, ‘Listen to me!’ It just doesn’t sit right somehow. I’d be quite happy just putting it out and not saying too much, just like (tiny voice) ‘Yeah I just put an album out yesterday, OK seeya…’ but hopefully people will like it. It’s very possible it’ll be out in the latter part of this year.”
And if the album doesn’t drop, you can guarantee that many, many other projects from dBridge’s constantly whirring studio will, as he constantly returns to the breakbeat source to create more magic. “The thing about drum & bass,” he concludes, “ is that for me, it’s still one of the most exciting genres in the world.”